In the almost 60 years since Gore Vidal began his career, he has written novels, poetry, short stories, screenplays and essays, and established himself as one of America's best living writers. In recent years, Vidal has become better known for his political views and essays than for his fiction and literature, and his work has earned him the label of conspiracy theorist on more than one occasion: Vidal has postulated that Roosevelt provoked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor, that Timothy McVeigh didn't act alone and that the Bush administration knew of the 9/11 terrorist-attack plan before it happened and allowed events to proceed in order to further its agenda. In addition, he says the mainstream media is complicit in many of these affairs.
"We have an administration," Vidal said in an e-mail interview, "that blithely lies to us about everything, and the people seem not to mind, but then how are they to know since the media has not done its job, to riot in understatement, when it comes to questioning high officials. I suspect that we may have to find some mechanism that will make it possible to recall an administration that sends troops to fight wars in countries that have done us no harm while embracing torture and imprisonment without due process of law."
Whether or not one agrees with Vidal, his chief aim is to defend the Republic and to speak in defense of civil liberties he sees eroding before his eyes. And if that means he's a conspiracy theorist, so be it. To Vidal, even the term "conspiracy" is a "laugh-word." It is used, he said, "because to cast doubt on anyone who has fingered a crook or detected a lie, it is all-important to make him out to be a crackpot. But we live in an age of conspiracy. And just review some recent conspiracies: Saddam Hussein is repeatedly linked with Osama bin Laden and 9/11. That much-repeated lie was the excuse for a preemptive war on Iraq. Enron, a vast financial conspiracy; [Tom] DeLay conspires to get corporate money to his fellow politicians. Remember the tobacco company executives who swore that they never knew that cigarettes were cancer-inducing?"
Strong words for an elder statesman whose body of work includes the historical novels Lincoln, Burr, Washington D.C., Julian, and the transsexual comedy Myra Breckenridge. Vidal was an early champion of gay rights, and also worked in New York and in Hollywood, writing stage and screenplays, and creating a niche acting career for himself, as well. He appeared in several films, including Fellini's Rome, Gattaca and Bob Roberts, in which he played the liberal Democratic candidate up against Tim Robbins' flashy and popular yet vacuous Republican. It doesn't take a film critic to see the parallels between Robbins' 1992 satire and the presidential elections of 2004.
Vidal, who just turned 80 and recently relocated from his Italian villa to Los Angeles, has always been an inveterate gadfly, a constant thorn in the side of politicians and right-wingers. As far back as 1968, Vidal squared off on live TV against conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr. during the infamous Chicago Democratic National Convention, calling Buckley a "pro-crypto-Nazi." In return, Buckley, who went on to found the National Review, called Vidal "a queer" and threatened to "sock you in your goddamn face" if Vidal called him that again.
Likewise, he has showed the current administration no mercy. In 2002, he published two short books of essays-or, as he called them, pamphlets-regarding the 9/11 attacks, attributing some of the blame to the federal government and its foreign policy. Both works, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Bush-Cheney Junta, had difficulty finding U.S. publishers in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but both became bestsellers once they were made available. Always prolific, Vidal has continued a steady output, publishing Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson in 2003 and Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of America a year later. He is currently working on a second memoir, encapsulating his life from 1965 onward; his first autobiography, Palimpsest, covered the first 39 years.
Despite his abiding distrust of Washington, Vidal said there are some decent politicians out there. "I watch a great deal of C-Span and there are a number of impressive figures in both houses of Congress," he said. "But they are seldom noted in the national media. I particularly admire John Conyers, ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee. Like so many of us, he suspected that the election of 2004 was stolen. So he went to Ohio with a first-rate staff and several other congressmen. He wrote a highly detailed report of how new electronic balloting machinery had been skewed and other misdeeds rather similar to the scandals of the 2000 election: For instance, in each case the state's secretary of state was a Republican who also doubled as a campaign manager for Bush-Cheney."
In fact, Conyers' report, What Went Wrong in Ohio, found "massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies" which, in many cases, "were caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio." None of this is surprising to Vidal, who wrote the report's introduction. "I predicted [in 2000] that with four years to get ready, the thievery would be seamless. Now they have [had] eight years to fix the 2008 election. Should this happen again, the American republic will be dead."
To Vidal, the situation in America may already be past the point of no return. The media, he says, is corrupt. "There are certainly a few useful journalists like [The New York Times'] Paul Krugman, but the electronic zoo drowns out useful voices. Then TV interviewers are addicted to the word "briefly,' as in "Briefly, what is the meaning of life? I'm sorry, our time is up.'"
Future elections hold little hope: "I wish I could suggest some really nice people for us all to vote for, but we are now too far out to sea and the next hurricane is about to make landfall...!" And we are falling behind other nations: "We live in a world where Asia is awakening and we are dangerously ignorant." And it all comes down to corruption in government. In light of the recent indictment dealt to Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, in regards to the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, Vidal said, "Cheney's day is done, but there is no governing structure to repair the damages done us by uncontrolled greed."
While Vidal's outlook isn't very cheery, looking back on his place in history and society is proving fruitful territory. This year alone, three books about him are slated for publication, including Dennis Altman's Gore Vidal's America. Vidal will appear with Altman on Monday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m., at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla, to discuss Altman's work, which seeks to place Vidal in both the social and political contexts of the post-World War II era. For his part, Vidal is adored and reviled, acclaimed and detested-strong reactions to his work and the mark of a truly strong voice.
His place in the annals of American literature is secure, not that legacy is particularly important to Vidal: "Those who fret about being remembered for this or that are truly certain to be erased."In the end, all he has tried to do is tell the truth as he sees it. That, Vidal says, is the most important work there is. "Montaigne thought that lying should be a capital offence," he said. "Because words are all that we have to hold human society together."